News SPI Blog

A different dialogue: Lifting up community voices

By: Sarah Cowart, communications manager for Social Policy Institute; Pamela Chan, associate director for Social Policy Institute, and Daniel Barker, director of research and knowledge, Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth

If you attended “Building an Inclusive Economy” on October 7 with the Social Policy Institute at Washington University in St. Louis (SPI) and Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth (the Center), you saw the efforts of an incredible, collaborative and passionate advisory committee. It is because of this group’s community knowledge and expertise that attendees experienced such an important and dynamic dialogue on advancing inclusive growth in St. Louis.

Partnering with the community in an advisory committee capacity is not standard practice for many academic and philanthropic institutions. In fact, we began planning this series with a more traditional model in mind—senior experts with a national outlook offering one-way insights for St. Louis civil servants and residents to consider. But we quickly realized that such an approach would completely miss the point of having a St. Louis oriented conversation, rooted in this place and the people that live here. If we really wanted to address equitable inclusive growth in St. Louis, we needed to partner with representatives of the community first and foremost.

The first step in this process, and potentially the hardest for large institutions, was recognizing that we didn’t have all the answers. SPI and the Center intentionally sought out the insight and recommendations from Community Builders Network, Neighborhood Leadership Academy, and colleagues at Washington University, among others. Based on their recommendations, the team recruited a small advisory committee, diverse in sector, age, gender and race to inform the content, structure and speakers for the event series. This process builds on the Center’s experience going to the community for answers grounded in real-world experience. In 2016, the Center engaged community leaders in a series of roundtable discussions in seven cities, including St. Louis, to identify how to better use Mastercard’s assets to support economic mobility (see a summary “On the Front Lines of Inclusive Growth”).

The individuals voluntarily serving on the committee are passionate about their community, knowledgeable about opportunities for more inclusion, and dedicated to lifting up the needs and voices of their neighbors. The committee began meeting in June to identify long- and short-term goals (a theory of change). We discussed the opportunities and challenges of inclusive growth to inform event topics and identified a need to go beyond increasing awareness to also identify resources and action steps attendees can take to further the conversation for more inclusive growth in the region.

The advisory committee was also very clear from the start that St. Louis needs to break silos and foster coordinated collaboration if we are to move towards a more inclusive economy. It is with this in mind that the 14 speakers at the first event included representation from a variety of sectors, as well as those in the audience. We want to create opportunities for partnership and learning from one another.

Philanthropy and academia—and many institutions—are too comfortable driving the conversation in a vacuum. Being invested in truly community-led dialogue means going where the community wants and needs to go and not imposing our will or preconceived ideas.

By prioritizing hearing from rather than talking to the community we care so much about, we met community leaders we may not have otherwise met; we learned about grassroots initiatives we didn’t know about before; and we formed new partnerships and relationships in our community. Philanthropy and academia—and many institutions—are too comfortable driving the conversation in a vacuum. Being invested in truly community-led dialogue means going where the community wants and needs to go and not imposing our will or preconceived ideas.

For this event series, SPI and the Center shifted power to the real experts on inclusive growth in St. Louis—the advisory committee. The event would not have the same impact if we had not embraced and trusted our community partners. In fact, this approach and collaboration have changed how both of our organizations think about our work and community partnerships.

The next five events in the Inclusive Growth event series will go deeper into the challenges, solutions and policy ideas on specific topics that support a more inclusive economy of growth. This event series alone will not change the systems excluding people from the benefits of economic growth in our region. Instead, it will build a coalition of like-minded people to champion inclusive growth opportunities both as an individual and on a larger, more regional scale. We hope attendees are motivated by what they hear from the local speakers and will ask themselves what they as an individual can do to change the outcomes.

The committee’s theory of change for this series is based on sharing resources and knowledge, lifting up local voices, and empowering attendees to help us build a more inclusive city and county. This event series has significant potential impact for the region and the individuals who have been left out of economic growth benefits in the past. We hope it’s the start of more conversations and action.

This event series wouldn’t have happened without community collaboration and change won’t either. Join the dialogue and be a part of building a more inclusive St. Louis.

The next event, Supporting Inclusive Households in Building Financial Security, will take place on December 10. Registration is open.